What Does Success in the Arts Look Like - Interview XV with Paula Santos

Paula Santos - Museum Educator, Los Angeles (USA)

Paula Santos is a museum educator and creator of the Cultura Conscious podcast. She’s currently Community Engagement Manager at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Formerly she has held positions at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn Museum and the Whitney Museum. She is a graduate of the Leadership in Museum Education program at Bank Street College and holds a B.A. in Art History from Williams College.  


What are your thoughts on fame in the arts?

Fame feels quite elusive to me, especially as an educator. It has never been a motivator for what I do. In fact, since I've become more of a public figure in museums, I sometimes brush up with some of the demands of producing content and drawing attention to myself. People feel like they know me and have an intimate experience listening to my podcast, which is lovely. The other side of that coin is that sometimes I feel as if people look to me for wisdom on some of society's most persistent issues. With more recognition there seems to be a higher expectation that what I have to say is meaningful. I can only imagine those expectations are magnified with fame and money.

What is your approach to rejection as a site of success?

I wish I had a more evolved attitude towards rejection. I hate the feeling of rejection and I'm absolutely not used to it even though I have felt it in major ways throughout my career. About a year ago I went through a rejection that at the time felt like an incredible set-back. It was the most disappointed I had felt professionally. Today I can look back and marvel at my resilience, but in that moment I was devastated. Finding a way to carry on after rejection is truly the biggest success. 

Any thoughts on income and financial stability and success?

Lately I've been incredibly transparent about the cost, financially and emotionally, of the decisions I've made in my career. I've always measured my success by my income and since it's always been so low, I haven't felt all that successful. My husband, who is a writer, once asked me how much money do I think we should make in order to fulfill my desire to be successful and I didn't have an answer. On the whole, I feel somewhat financially stable these days, which then feeds a healthier outlook on success in my mind, but I'm so very keenly aware that everything could change from one day to another. 

Image courtesy ©Paula Santos

Image courtesy ©Paula Santos

How do you define success in the arts?

Being able to do work I'm passionate about is a huge success for me. I've been able to find projects and positions where I've been able to be creative and to influence decision making with the greater goal of creating more equitable institutions. When I think about the success of my friends and colleagues working in arts and culture, I think about the communities they're building among each other, their leadership in shaping the future of museums, and also their ability to remain authentic to themselves. Some of the most successful people I know spend so little time performing success, they simply are living and doing their life's work. 

Do you have role models for success and who are they?

I've been lucky enough to have a couple of mentors throughout my career. I admire the way they've made their passions their work, how deeply they dive into their practice, and how much of themselves they bring into their professional lives. They are people who absolutely have a personal stake in their work. One of them is Veronica Alvarez, Director of School and Teacher Programs at LACMA and the other is one of my best friends, Jenny DeBower, Director of Programs and Evaluation at Center for Anti-Violence Education in Brooklyn. 

Which advice on success would you give your 18-year-old self?

Don't sweat the small stuff. It's a cliché, but I find myself saying some variation of that to younger museum professionals who ask for my advice. Keep the bigger picture in mind and don't be afraid. Oh, and don't work for free. 

Your thoughts on success in the arts and race/ gender

Race and gender absolutely affect your level of professional success and also your perception of whether you're successful or not. I'm not as self-conscious about being one of few brown women in the room, but that is only because of repeated exposure. To loop this back to the money conversation, because I'm the daughter of immigrants who have been underpaid doing manual labor at factories their whole life, my income is exponentially important. I'm the first real opportunity at some generational wealth.